Solitude in the heart of the city


This morning I got up early, leaving Blackburnian still asleep in bed, and slipped out the door with my camera and sketchbook to go to one of my favourite spots in the city. Unlike the Rouge, this area is just a short drive, perhaps ten minutes along in-town roads, located in a section of the Don River valley. I discovered it a couple of years ago, when I was hired by the city to do a report for them on one of their properties. This was the area I chose to use as a control site during my study. I chose it initially because it was un-groomed, natural and wild, and over the course of the next several months I really fell in love with the location.

It’s accessed from a small park and playground, through a short, narrow mini-ravine that runs between two rows of houses. The trails are used almost exclusively by the local residents for jogging and dog-walking. I encountered very few people on the trails during my surveys. This morning, in the hour and a half I’m there, I meet no one. This is one of the things I love about the place; it’s quiet, peaceful, relatively undisturbed, and you can almost forget you’re in the heart of the city.


Halfway down the entry trail I notice these snowballs. The sides of the mini-ravine here are steep, and evidently something, perhaps a fallen twig or bit of bark, began sliding down the side of the slope, gathering snow about it as it went. It’s not the typical snowball you see when snow rolls down a hill, and I have to assume that the object slid rather than rolled, and spun as it did so to create these neat doughnut shapes.

Trail with city as backdrop

The entry trail meets up with the main network, and I turn to follow it to the north. It runs along the base of another set of homes. I think how magnificent the view from their back porches must be, and then I think they must command a real premium on house price for such a location. Indeed, most ravine-backing homes are way out of my price range in the city, usually starting at $500-600k for the small run-down places, and going up to well over a million for the really nice ones. Toronto is a wealthy city. It has to be, in order for so many people to live here, with property prices being what they are. In the neighbourhood where we rent you’re lucky to find anything in good shape for less than $300k. I couldn’t afford to buy here on my own. Even Blackburnian and I together would be hard-pressed to find something we could afford jointly. Who are these people, making all this money?

I turn west down a small side trail, and am afforded my only real view of the city as a backdrop to the park, with a few tall apartment buildings towering over the treetops, at the far side of the Don. A short distance down the trail and the city melts back into the trees, hidden from view, and forgotten, for the moment.

Don River valley

The side trail comes out at a bluff, overlooking a bend in the Don where a gravel bed has been exposed. During my surveys I always scanned the gravel for Killdeer or Spotted Sandpipers, but never saw either, despite it looking like a good spot for them. I did once see a Black-crowned Night Heron fishing from one of the low-hanging trees, but the bend, for all its nice scenery, was always disappointingly empty.

I pause, and look out over the river. The sun is peeking above the trees and casting a warm glow on the bare canopy of the forest across the way. It hasn’t yet reached the river, or even where I’m standing. I briefly consider stopping here, but decide I’d like to sit someplace in the sun, and move on.


The trail goes down a small incline (decline?) and where it levels out it passes through a small grove of spruce. Their lower branches have been pruned from them years ago to make room for trail users to pass through, which gives them an unusually domesticated look, for someplace far from the nearest backyard. In this natural tunnel I recall frequently encountering chickadees, kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers during my spring surveys. There is no one here at the moment.

Northern Cardinal

In other areas, though, the trees are full of song. The cardinals have woken with the dawn, and perch in the upper branches of the poplars, illuminated by the warm orange rays of the rising sun. There are at least a dozen of them, I estimate, throughout the area. They all belt out their declaration of possession of their claimed bits of woodland. “Cheer! Cheer! Whit-whit-whit-whit! … Birdy, birdy, birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy!”

The other birds join in. I hear a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches arguing back and forth at each other over the ownership of a particular patch of cedars, and briefly glimpse a short chase as they dash through a small clearing. A pair of male Downy Woodpeckers has at it over the attentions of a female, who seems rather blasé about the whole episode. House Finches fly over the site in groups of two or three, and I hear the odd male singing. Chickadees move through a patch of hawthorn, calling to one another, and a trio of crows perches atop the maples and caw loudly. The birds seem to be as happy about the sunny morning and approach of spring as I am.

Don River

I come out from the spruce grove along side the river, at a lower area along its banks. The river takes another turn here and is lost from sight, winding its way through the city toward Lake Ontario. It is beautiful here, natural and undisturbed, but along its length it will run through less pristine areas, ultimately coming out through an industrial zone at its mouth before exiting into the lake. A freeway runs north and south through a large part of the valley system, but is far enough away here that I don’t notice it. A rail bed also runs along the valley, and a train thunders by while I’m there. It’s just beyond the ridge, and I can’t see it, but I can certainly hear it. I’ve seen salmon in these parts of the river before, and it seems at odds with the surrounding city, particularly considering the state of the mouth of the river. Nature forges onward.


I decide to take a trail branch that I’ve never been down. On this section of the trail I had always been in the middle of my survey and was unable to follow the side branches. They were often muddy, too, compared to the main trail. However, a few people have been down here recently, and the snow is packed enough to walk along comfortably. I come through another small grove of spruce and the trail widens into a small open area. The sun is streaming in here, and the spruce protect me from the wind. The clearing feels cozy, and I decide this is the spot. I find a log to settle on, and pull out my sketchbook.

I am not ordinarily a field-sketcher. Usually I’m too busy watching birds or taking photos to settle down somewhere and sketch. I admire those who do, though. Debby at Drawing The Motmot is a fabulous field-sketcher. I absolutely love her rainforest studies, which are done in pen while sitting in the field, over as many as three days.

While I have the skill to execute those sorts of drawings, I am sure, I also know I don’t have the practice, or the patience, right now. There’s too much to do, to look at, and I haven’t disciplined myself to sit still long enough to study the landscape and develop the eye necessary to render such detail so accurately. I content myself to sitting for perhaps 20 minutes, soaking up the warm sun, and casually sketching the trail in front of me. Perhaps I’ll make an effort this year to pause more often and sketch a little more.

Sketch of Sauriol trail